Decaying waterways need rebuilding, too

Decaying waterways need rebuilding, too




Crain's Chicago Business, 9/26/14

Warnings about our crumbling infrastructure tend to focus on highways and bridges, railroads and subway systems. And there's no question that these surface systems, in Illinois and around the country, need a lot of attention.

But what about our waterways? We hear less concern about the state of our aquatic transportation infrastructure.

Many forget that Chicago's status as the nation's transportation hub is rooted in the era when most goods moved by water. Its rise from remote trading post to mid-continent metropolis began when immigrant laborers arrived to dig the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Fewer still appreciate the continuing role of water shipping in our economy. Boats and barges transport everything from steel to soybeans across our state. Nearly all Illinois' agricultural exports leave the state by boat.

True, they play second fiddle to trucks and trains these days. But still, the numbers are impressive. As my colleague Paul Merrion reported earlier this week, some 100 million tons of goods travel by water every year in Illinois. It would take 4 million trucks to carry that much cargo. Barges are also the cheapest form of cargo shipping.

But the story makes clear that our waterways are as bad off as the rest of our infrastructure, if not worse. Locks, dams and other shipping facilities built in the 1930s are giving way. Traffic on rivers and canals is slowing to a crawl, with congestion delays draining $7 billion annually from the Chicago-area economy, according to a business coalition led by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.


We're headed for a maritime shipping collapse. If nothing changes, we'll have to find 4 million trucks to haul those 100 million tons of cargo. Think what that would mean for Illinois' beat-up, congested highways. Another report estimates that if barge shipping on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers came to a halt in the St. Louis area, “truck traffic would double, traffic delays would increase fivefold and injuries and fatalities would increase from 36 to 45 percent on Interstate highways.”

What's needed, of course, is money for repairs. But in a time when Congress can't even agree on a highway funding bill, getting cash for overlooked water transportation systems has been difficult.

The Illinois Chamber coalition is trying to spur action by calling attention to the consequences of letting locks and dams disintegrate. Their report notes that preventive maintenance has been abandoned, with dwindling funds reserved for fixing equipment as it breaks down.

That's no way to run a waterway. But it's the only option left until Congress comes across with more funding. Ironically, funding has been authorized, but not appropriated. In Washington, appropriation is everything. Unfortunately, it's also where everything slides into the partisan stalemate.

But this is an issue that should transcend partisanship, at least for the Illinois delegation. They need to break this logjam.

Follow Joe Cahill on Twitter at @CahillOnBiz.

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